The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.00, 336pp.
One of the translation metaphors I find least compelling is that of ventriloquism. I have never been quite sure who is who in this comparison. The idea of the translator as a wooden dummy perched on the author’s knee, channeling the voice of the ventriloquist, is plainly disturbing on a number of levels. This metaphor becomes no less disturbing if the author becomes the dummy and the translator the manipulative puppet-master. Unfortunately, this is precisely what seems to happen at points throughout Jonathan Franzen’s translation of two essays by Karl Kraus, with a great deal of annotation (much of it about the translator rather than the text) The Kraus Project.
The book kindly provides the original in facing-page format, which is a bold step because it invites busybodies to pick holes in Franzen’s translation. Michael Hofmann’s critique in the New York Review of Books makes a number of worthwhile points that I will resist repeating; instead, I would like to focus on the larger questions raised by Franzen’s translation.
To speak with Hofmann, the translation is serviceable but staid and very literal. There are flashes of linguistic brilliance, as one might expect from an accomplished novelist: “die verlangende Jugend” becomes “the hankerings of youth,” “Sinnigkeiten und Witzigkeiten” is rendered as “prettinesses and wittinesses,” “einseifte” becomes “laid on the soft soap.” But Franzen rarely alters Kraus’s sentence structure, other than occasionally running together two shorter sentences. Not being an experienced translator, he doesn’t automatically reach for the German-to-English bag of tricks—adding gerunds, turning bothersome nouns into verbs and vice versa, chopping sentences up like Mr. Punch’s string of sausages. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however; applied too liberally, these routine operations can make for dull translations, rendering complex prose in a streamlined and predictable style. What it suggests, though, is that Franzen is so much in awe of Kraus and his style that he is unwilling to do anything daring in his translation of it.
Another recent high-profile translation project sheds more light on this phenomenon of the awed writer-as-translator. In Adam Thirlwell’s Multiples, sixty-one novelists, let loose on texts and instructed to translate them as they wished, produced several chains of versions, each moving further away from the originals. And yet as Thirlwell comments in his introduction, there was greater reverence for certain originals than others:
There are maybe four categories of translation, it turned out—of the celebrated dead, of the uncelebrated dead, of the celebrated living, and of the uncelebrated living. Each one can constrain or free the novelist-translator to various degrees of stylistic chutzpah.
One writer who knew he was translating Kafka, Etgar Keret, expressed a peculiar fear about dealing with such a respected writer’s work:
One thing I had to deal with was the huge number of times the word ”creature” appears in the text. I really wanted to change it to animal in some places and lose it entirely in others, but in most cases I was afraid I’d piss off Kafka’s ghost. As a result I stuck to the text more than I wanted to, but luckily I was able to convince Nathan [Englander, who translated Keret's version into English] to change it in his text. This way we both got a better final text in the end, and Kafka’s ghost will haunt Nathan and not me.
Karl Kraus, I suspect, would make a very unpleasant ghost, and perhaps it was such a fear that prompted the facing-page format. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Patrick Bahners wrote of The Kraus Project: “One usually calls a book a project as long as it’s not finished. Franzen began his translations as a student, thirty years ago. By presenting the completed work as uncompleted, he takes into account Kraus’s doubt in the possibility of translation.” If Franzen does share the view that translating Kraus’s work is impossible, he may have wanted to give a clear signal that the original is the authoritative version by including it in the book.
While I understand the reasons for his fidelity, I find it a shame that Franzen didn’t intervene more through his translation. One of the most puzzling aspects of the project as a whole is why Franzen, who has repeatedly expressed disapproval of “difficult” writing, should want people to read Karl Kraus, whose style he variously describes as “deliberately hard,” “dense and intricately coded,” “an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.” My hope was that Franzen would use his translation to break down that barrier, providing us with an elucidating text that helps us to understand what Kraus was getting at. While the footnotes are helpful for understanding the historical context, particularly the scholar Paul Reitter’s excellent contributions, they rarely help us to get closer to Kraus’s meaning. The translation itself does nothing of the sort.
Having said that, there are a few moments when Franzen does intervene, and these are telling. The first instance is in a passage that seems particularly objectionable to present-day readers, in which Kraus compares the French and German languages to women. Franzen plays down the sexism, giving us “You have to prove yourself a man in full before the German language will give you the time of day” for “ein ganzer Kerl”—a real man—and “sie herumkriegen”—which is closer to seducing than being given the time of day. A page later he renders “die Lust” as “joy”, a borderline legitimate choice but not one I would make here—“Language arouses and stimulates, like a woman, brings joy and, with it, thought.” This sentence is accompanied by an apologetic footnote:
Many of Kraus’s generalizations about women sound unattractive today. In the years before the First World War, he consistently portrayed men as the intellectual achievers, women as the repositories of the human capacity for sexual pleasure. About all that can be said in defense of this view is that Kraus’s style depended on extreme, pithy contrasts . . . and that he meant it nicely.
Kraus liked women, Franzen tells us, “but for a long time his amorous experience was mainly with actresses.” I laughed at this line; I wasn’t sure whether Franzen meant to suggest that actresses are airheads. Another example of unthinking chauvinism in the second essay is not highlighted, but prompts a footnote on Franzen’s own past prudish views on sexuality.
The translator seems to admire the writer so much that he tries to defend his ideological failings, which are very much of his time, not only by means of the footnotes but also by toning them down in English. In another case a word goes missing entirely. Where Kraus quotes a Heine poem about Indianer—rendered by Franzen as Indians—and then mocks the poet with a snide “einer indianischen Lokalkorrespondenz zufolge,” Franzen calls the correspondent merely “local,” losing the casual racism. I was reminded of a recent BBC radio feature, in which the British novelist Naomi Aldermann tried her hand at Jules Verne in a translation slam with professionals. She stumbled over the very same word, or rather the same signified because of course it was the French Indien. Her solution was to update the word to “Sioux,” saying: “I just couldn’t bring myself to use the word ‘Red Indian.’” As the professionals commented, it wasn’t her being racist; it was Jules Verne, another man of his time.
Curiously, there is one unpleasant Krausian trait that Franzen overplays in his translation: anti-Semitism. Near the beginning of the Heine essay, Kraus writes about Heine bringing tidings of France to the Germans, “on a byway that German men avoid: from chopped liver to the blue flower.” The original to match that loaded “chopped liver” is “Gansleber,” literally goose liver—which could well be an anti-Semitic reference to the goose schmaltz used in kosher cuisine, or then again might simply refer to foie gras to symbolize what Kraus saw as France’s deplorable love of fine food and luxury.
Franzen chooses the least appealing option and addresses Kraus’s anti-Semitism in a number of footnotes, starting here with one including the line “Chopped liver is—chopped liver.” Unless it’s foie gras, of course. I actually rather admire this less faithful rendering because it gives the reader a helping hand. Franzen substitutes a reference American readers will easily spot, the kind of short cut to understanding I’d hoped for from the book. Sadly, he does so at a particularly inconvenient point and thereby imposes his own interpretation on the text more than we usually allow translators to do.
The ultimate apologetic gesture in the book, to my mind, is the inclusion of Kraus’s poem “Man frage nicht . . .”. Written twenty-three years after his invective against the Jewish poet Heine, it was Kraus’s response to Hitler’s “seizure of power,” as Daniel Kehlmann puts it in his short essay in the footnotes. Shocked and frightened, Kraus had fallen uncharacteristically silent and then published this poem, including the line: “there’s stillness since the earth broke.” Kraus was Jewish himself and had good reason to be terrified. The poem is powerful and moving, and right. But it is unrelated to anything else in the book. The only reason I can see for including it is that it justifies Franzen’s belief in Kraus—he may have been sexist, racist, insulting, hypocritical, and anti-Semitic, but he was right about the Nazis.
Franzen writes: “when I then came to the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus, I found the paternal example I’d been looking for.” His admiration may have lessened since he first discovered Kraus as a “literary father,” but it’s still expressed in his repeated apologies (“he meant it nicely” has the clear ring of a son excusing a paternal faux-pas, for example). He’s even willing to forgive him his difficult phrasing, or at least to leave his sentences untouched and give us this bare explanation:
But this is the dangerous thing about literary difficulty: the farther the writer moves away from transparent, readily graspable language (and you can’t move much farther away than Kraus did and still hope to convey coherent thoughts), the greater the temptation to cut corners. I don’t think Kraus himself cuts very many, but once you start writing sentences that are deliberately opaque on first reading, the door is open to writing sentences that remain opaque on the hundredth reading.
Yet Franzen believes only “less scrupulous avant-gardists” exploit this opacity to excuse flaws in their writing, of which there are more to my mind in Kraus than his translator will admit.
The other thing Franzen does is to emulate his hero, which is almost as sweet as the apologies. Obviously, the translator’s task is all about emulation; the writer of footnotes, however, is usually freed from this filial duty. Where Kraus showers praise on the playwright Nestroy, “pushing the kinship angle” by suggesting he would have written aphorisms like Kraus did himself, Franzen puts anachronisms into his otherwise faithful translation to make his own points: “Intelligenz” becomes “commentariat” and “Zeiten und Zeitungen” becomes “times and Times”. In fact, one might argue that the whole project is Franzen putting words into Kraus’s mouth. Essentially, Franzen is telling us that this dead writer would have preferred PCs to Macs, would have abhorred cable news channels, and would not have put up with the terror of niceness expected of American writers today.
All of which is forgivable, under the circumstances. The instance of uncritical emulation for which I cannot forgive Jonathan Franzen, however, is belittling Heinrich Heine. Before the translation even begins, he compares Heine’s flight from Germany to Parisian “exile”—those quotation marks are Franzen’s—to Bob Dylan switching to the electric guitar. By “making things cute and topical,” as Kraus accuses Viennese journalists of doing, Franzen makes light of Heine’s political and religious repression in Germany. Just because Kraus hated Heine, there is no reason for Franzen to do so as well.
In the end, I can almost understand it. As a translator, I know that craving to translate a particular book I admire. Often, that admiration fades during the translation process, and perhaps that happened with Franzen’s project. Certainly, his apologies become less frequent as the book continues. All professional envy aside, I am grateful to him for getting such an obscure project published by a major house, and for having the media wherewithal to get people talking about a dead Austrian writer. I appreciate the book’s hybrid form, combining translation, commentary and personal essay—but I suspect it won’t be repeated by poorly paid and under-recognized translators any time soon.
Katy Derbyshire is a translator of contemporary German fiction, including Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Simon Urban and Sibylle Lewitscharoff.
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